Hey, That’s Mine!

My current greyhound, Phoenix has broken all of the greyhound molds.  He is not like a greyhound in many ways.  He is ball obsessed.  He loves water.  He is more like a lab than a greyhound.  And, he’s got possession aggression issues.  Didn’t I read in those greyhound books that greyhounds were supposed to be peaceful, non-aggressive dogs?  What my experience with Phoenix and dear departed Pharaoh has taught me is that greyhounds are dogs and they can come with the baggage that all dogs can have.

What exactly is possession aggression?  Possession aggression and resource guarding are the same thing.  This type of aggression has nothing to do with dominance or a dog wanting to be in control of the human.  Rather, it is most likely related to a dog’s instincts of survival.  Many dogs’ instincts tell them to protect food/possessions in case there is a shortage in the future or in case another animal tries to steal the food.  To the dog it is a normal behavior.  To the humans the dog lives with it is an abnormal and inappropriate behavior.  Regardless of whether or not it is a normal or abnormal behavior, it is one that is dangerous for the humans living with the dog and that needs to be fixed.

So, how does Phoenix show his possession aggression?  If he has a ball or a stuffed animal and I approach him, he growls.  If he is eating and I approach his food, he growls.  He has never bitten, but I have not pushed him and am sure he would.  Some dogs eat faster, some dogs try to get away from you when they are eating or chewing a bone. Some, like Phoenix, will sit there and growl with fire coming out of his eyes, some dogs will lunge and yes, some dogs will bite.  What the dog is trying to communicate is that what he has is his and he ain’t gonna’ be giving it up without a fight.

When I was at the Wheeling adoption kennel picking Phoenix out to foster, I realized that one thing they do there might contribute to greyhounds and guarding behavior.  Some greys in the adoption kennel are more toy motivated than others.  Some will degut their stuffies.  So, not every grey has a stuffed animal in their kennel.  When the dogs are let out of their crates, it is very common for them to run around and look into each other’s kennels to see what is in there.  I did witness more than one grey steal another’s toy and take it to their own crate.  It was obvious to me that this could help guarding behavior develop.  Do not get me wrong:  I am not criticizing them, as it made sense not to give every dog a toy.   But, it also made sense also that this environment could contribute to guarding behavior later in life.

How does one go about addressing this behavior?  I have to admit, my first reaction is to want to grab whatever it is Phoenix is guarding and tell him “baloney (I’d probably use different words, though), this is mine and you can not act like a brat in my house.”   But, my gut reaction is the exact wrong thing to do.  I have watched sessions of the Dog Whisperer where Cesar Milan hits dogs on the neck and hisses at them if they curl their lip or growl over an item. This also is the exact wrong thing to do.

Think about it:  if I give you a $100 bill, tell you it is yours to do with it what you want, and then ask for it back, how would you respond?  Some of you out there would say “ok, it was not mine to begin with, here.”  Others of you would whine and protest, but might give it back.  Others of you might run.  Others of you would say “yeah, just try and take it.  You gave it to me, it’s mine.  Back off.”  How you would respond depends upon the temperament that you were born with and maybe some environmental factors.   To those of you who responded that you would do anything other than give it back happily, how would you feel if I smacked you upside the head and yelled at you for not promptly and quietly returning it to me?  How will that make you feel about me approaching you and asking you for your $100 bill if the future?

The best way to approach a grey that is guarding an object is to convince the grey that when you approach, good things are going to happen to the dog.  You want your grey thinking “I love it when Mommy approaches when I have a bone, because I always get a piece of chicken.”  So, what I am doing with Phoenix is trying to remember every time I feed him to stand around and throw really good smelly treats into his bowl or onto his blanket where he is eating.  I am trying to desensitize and counter-condition him to think that me approaching when he is eating or has a bone means good things are going to happen to him, not that I am going to steal his treasure.

I also think that people who have resource guarders should hand feed their dog for at least two weeks before starting any behavioral treatment.  The dog needs to know that hands around food are good and that food comes from you, not the food bowl.

The key to teaching your grey that an approaching human means good things when the dog is eating or guarding an item, is to stay far enough away from the dog that you do not trigger their guarding response.  You want them feeling good about your approach, not apprehensive or your attempts to counter-condition will not work.

It is always good to teach your grey the “drop it” cue.  To the dog this means, “spit out anything in my mouth.”  I always teach this positively and as a trade.  Give your dog something he will put in his mouth and ask him to “drop it.”  I like using big rawhides or retriever rolls and sometimes will hold onto it with one hand.  You do not tug, though.  Offer him something better than he has:  you are trading up.  When he drops the object in his mouth, give him what you have offered.  Remember, this is an object exchange and you are teaching your grey to want to offer you what he’s got in his mouth and you can only do this if you motivate him with something better.

Phoenix has made teaching “drop it” easy due to his ball obsession.  I try to play with two balls and one is always hidden.  When he comes back to me to throw the ball in his mouth, he has to drop it on cue before I throw it. Sometimes the guarder in him keeps him from dropping the ball.  It is then that I pull out the hidden ball.  The look on his face is priceless when I do that.  “Huh, where’d that come from?”  He will immediately spit out the ball in his mouth and try to get the ball in my hand.

The best piece of advice I can give you is that if your grey develops guarding behavior, do not panic.  It is highly fixable.  I highly recommend Jean Donaldson’s Mine as a great book on resource guarding.  This book has protocols to follow to systematically counter-condition and desensitize your dog to the approach of a person while eating or chewing a bone.  Consult with me or with another positive dog trainer/behavior counselor for more specific advice.  

1 Not that I am complaining!  I love him dearly for who he is and am enjoying him immensely.  He is exactly what I wanted in a grey.

Lilian Akin, CPDT

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